“A sphinx, an enigmatic being … nature steeped in demanding contradictions and seductive by that very fact … she seemed to come from another world — one where she would have been despotically sovereign.”
— René Dumesnil, from a tribute article published in Le Monde, October 25, 1960
In every era, there are always a few people in the arts whose life and career seem like something out of a movie or novel.
Such a characterization is wholly apt in the case of dancer and dramatic actress Ida Rubinstein, the Russian-Jewish femme fatale who commanded the limelight in Paris for nearly half a century.
Born in 1885 (some sources reference her birth year as 1883) into a fabulously wealthy sugar, brewery and banking family from the Ukrainian city of Kharkov — at the time part of the Russian Empire — Lydia Lvovna Rubinstein was orphaned shortly thereafter. But the lucky child was raised in St. Petersburg by relatives who were firmly integrated into the social fabric of the Imperial Capital.
From a very early age, Rubinstein exhibited a flair for the theatrical, always going by the name “Ida” instead of her given name. Her arts-loving family ensured maximum exposure to the cultural activities of the city. Traveling to Greece as a young woman inspired her to pursue the theatre with even greater intensity.
Rubinstein met and began working closely with theatrical designer and artist Lev Rosenberg (later known as Léon Bakst) to stage a private showing of Sophocles’ ancient Grecian play Antigone. This marked the beginning of her career as a dramatic actress — as well as the beginning of what would turn out to be a lifelong friendship with the soon-to-be-world famous set and costume designer.
Through Bakst, Rubinstein was introduced to other important artistic figures of the day in Imperial Russia, including the impresario Serge Diaghilev and the choreographer Mikhail Fokine. Both men would prove to be very instrumental in her later international success.
In 1907, Rubinstein married a cousin, thereby gaining control of her inheritance as well as the social independence she craved; the marriage appears to have been one of convenience. Following a second private theatrical production in St. Petersburg — this one roundly criticized by government censors — Rubinstein joined up with Serge Diaghilev in 1909 when he formed his Ballets Russes troupe for its first Paris season.
In the inaugural Paris season, Rubinstein’s dancing thrilled audiences in such ballet productions as Cléopâtre (set to the music of Arensky, Glinka, Mussorgsky and Glazunov), which included a notorious disrobing scene that surely set tongues wagging throughout the city.
A veritable “who’s who” of Paris artistic society attended the season; in addition to Florent Schmitt, key luminaries seen in the audience each night included Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Isadora Duncan, Auguste Robin, José-Maria Sert, Jean Cocteau and many others.
Rubinstein’s Paris debut was so noteworthy, she soon had the opportunity to dance in London (at the Coliseum), in Italy, and even at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Even greater success came in 1910 when Rubinstein danced the part of Zobéïde in the Ballets Russes production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade — widely admired at the time for its sumptuous staging and frank sensuality.
In the audience that season were Pablo Picasso, Sarah Bernhardt, and Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fézensac, a Symbolist poet, aesthete and patron of the arts who would become Ida Rubinstein’s indefatigable social champion during the next decade.
In the run-up to World War I, Rubinstein would open a Paris studio where she prepared theatrical productions such as Oscar Wilde’s Salome (in Wilde’s own original French manuscript) and several productions featuring libretti by the Italian journalist, playwright and poet Gabriele D’Annunzio.
One of these in particular is interesting in how it presaged Rubinstein’s practice of commissioning music from contemporary composers for her new stage works. It was D’Annunzio’s production of Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien, set to new music by Claude Debussy with choreography by Fokine and costumes by Bakst.
Its premiere was controversial, with Rubinstein — a Jewish woman — playing the part of Sebastian, a Christian man (and a saint to boot).
The Archbishop of Paris went so far as to issue a pastoral letter condemning the work as “offensive to the Christian conscience,” and forbidding French Catholics from attending performances under penalty of excommunication.
With the onset of war, Ida Rubinstein, like many other musicians, artists and authors, volunteered for the war effort — but in her own theatrical way. In her specially tailored nurse’s uniform (designed by Bakst), not only did she attend to wounded soldiers, she traveled the country, reciting poetry from Count de Montesquiou’s Offrandes blessées.
Seeing her in this garb, Jean Cocteau described Rubinstein “like the pungent perfume of some exotic essence — ethereal, otherworldly, divinely unattainable …”
During this time, Rubinstein also produced and starred in a new version of Racine’s play Phèdre, donating the financial proceeds to the French war effort. According to dance historian and author Lynn Garafola, “World War I made the Russian-Jewish cosmopolitan of the prewar years a member of the French cultural polity.”
Towards the end of the war, Rubinstein began working with André Gide on a new French production of Shakespeare’s play Antony & Cleopatra. “I dive into the translation … with rapture,” Gide reported in his diary in April 1917. By November it was completed, and Gide read it to Rubinstein in the company of Bakst, who was to design and produce the sets and costumes.
It was Bakst who suggested retaining Igor Stravinsky to compose incidental music for the play — much in the way that Debussy had written musical numbers for Saint-Sébastien.
Reportedly, Stravinsky was interested. But he expressed his concerns about the style of the music envisioned for the production in a letter to Bakst dated July 11, 1917:
“I must talk seriously with either you or Gide [about] how you intend to present Shakespeare. If you are going to put him in the … light spirit and sumptuous settings of Saint-Sébastien … then I definitely can’t imagine a link between such a treatment … and the music I would be interested in writing.”
In response, Bakst noted the “recent, bitter failure” of another production that had been designed in a neo-primitivist style. “If Shakespeare’s masterpiece had to be portrayed in the same ‘progressive’ terms, obviously I would have to do without the honor and pleasure of your collaboration,” Bakst wrote.
In the event, Rubinstein withdrew her substantial financial offer of 25,000 Swiss francs, and turned to another composer — Florent Schmitt.
Why Schmitt? Two reasons, probably.
First, at this time Florent Schmitt was considered not only the foremost “orientalist” composer in France, but in the entire world. In order to exemplify and augment the lush exoticism that Gide, Bakst and Rubinstein envisioned for the production, Schmitt’s score would undoubtedly contribute mightily to the overall effect.
The second reason is that Rubinstein had recently danced the leading role in Schmitt’s popular ballet La Tragédie de Salomé, which had had its stage premiere in 1907 with several other successful Paris productions thereafter (in 1912 with Natalia Trouhanova, and a 1913 Ballets Russes production featuring Tamara Karsavina in the title role).
The 1919 production starring Rubinstein, with new choreography by Nicola Guerra, was likewise a strong success. In the process the two artists had developed a mutually rewarding working relationship. That same year, Rubinstein decided to commission Schmitt to compose the incidental music for her next big production.
Antony & Cleopatra came to the stage in 1920. True to form, it was a gala spectacular at the Paris Opéra that spared no expense. Bakst’s original conception of ten pieces of incidental music had been reduced to six. Even so, between the music and the play itself, the production went into the wee hours of the morning.
As reported in Roger Nichols’ book The Harlequin Years: Music in Paris 1917-1929, one critic wryly noted:
“The show dragged on and on, and towards 1 a.m. the orchestra followed the audience’s example and discreetly improvised a variation on the Farewell Symphony. For it was only towards 2 a.m. that Cleopatra at last consented to die …”
Despite the lavish production values, which included not only Rubinstein but also the famed Edouard de Max in the starring roles along with sets by Bakst and costumes by Jacques Drésa (Rubinstein’s costumes prepared by no less than Maison Worth), Antoine et Cléopâtre would run for just five performances.
Salvaging the music, Schmitt prepared two concert suites from the incidental music, which were published by Durand as the composer’s Opus 69.
The music is unquestionably remarkable. The American conductor JoAnn Falletta, whose Buffalo Philharmonic recording of the two suites is due for release on the NAXOS label in November 2015, considers it to be among Schmitt’s greatest masterpieces — on par if not superior to the composer’s far more famous Salomé and Psalm 47.
[An interview of JoAnn Falletta talking about performing and recording the music can be read here.]
Equally important, Rubinstein’s production of Antony & Cleopatra marked the launch of her own ballet company, Les ballets Ida Rubinstein. Over the course of the next two decades, in addition to reviving ballets such as Stravinsky’s Firebird and d’Indy’s Istar, Rubinstein would produce and star in more than a dozen completely new stage works, featuring music written by some of the best composers working on the Paris scene.
The list of Rubinstein’s “new creations” is impressive, and includes:
- Florent Schmitt: Antoine et Cléopâtre (1920)
- Paul Paray: Artemis troublée (1922)
- Ildebrando Pizzetti: Phèdre (1923)
- Arthur Honegger: Les noces d’Amour et de Psyché (1928)
- Darius Milhaud: La bien-aimée (1928)
- Maurice Ravel: Boléro (1928)
- Henri Sauget: David et Goliath (1928)
- Igor Stravinsky: Le baiser de la fee (1928)
- Georges Auric: Les enchantements d’Alcine (1929)
- Maurice Ravel: La valse (1929)
- Arthur Honegger: Amphion (1931)
- Jacques Ibert: Diane de Poitiers (1934)
- Igor Stravinsky: Perséphone (1934)
- Arthur Honegger: Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (1938)
- Florent Schmitt: Oriane et le Prince d’Amour (1938)
And notice … bookending the list are stage productions with music composed by Florent Schmitt.
Regarding Oriane et le Prince d’Amour, the second collaboration between Schmitt and Rubinstein, the manner in which the composer came to learn of the commission is amusingly recounted in Vicki Woolf’s biography of Ida Rubinstein, Dancing in the Vortex. In it, the author quotes Schmitt in his own words.
[When Ida Rubinstein] came to tell him, she found he was far away in his country retreat at Artiguemy in Hautes-Pyrenees. Schmitt remembered:
“It was a beautiful summer afternoon. I was in Artiguemy lying under the apple trees facing an incomparable southern peak untouched by snow – completely at peace, thinking no evil thoughts – when a sound like an earthquake shattered the quiet. A motor car, foolishly tackling the goat path, had smashed itself around a great oak and hurled its two lady passengers onto the ground.
The oak tree had only a few scratches. As for Mme. Rubinstein, everyone knows she is above such calamities: Tracing the line of the oak tree, as erect, as high and still smiling, she scarcely realized that she had escaped the most picturesque of deaths. By her side, no less unscathed, was Mme. Fauchier-Magnan, a friend of Ida’s. They had come 873 miles to offer me this ballet.”
And what a ballet it was: A nearly hour-long production in two acts and four scenes, the story line went several steps beyond the “passion and blood” of even Salomé, Cléopâtre and Salammbô, Schmitt’s other major “orientalist” frescoes.
The musical forces called for in the production were every bit as sumptuous as the costumes and scenery — requiring a tenor soloist in addition to a large mixed chorus and full orchestra.
While press accounts regarding some Ballets Ida Rubinstein productions (as well as her dramatic stagings) varied in the extent of their praise, author Roger Nichols notes that “many of the critical notices in the Paris press exuded a rank smell of xenophobia — with more than the occasional whiff of anti-Semitism. But no critic likes to be baffled for long.”
Regarding Rubinstein’s level of “inscrutability,” Nichols quotes Mme. Madeleine Milhaud — Darius’ Milhaud’s wife who lived from 1902 to 2008 (!) — who offered this cameo description of Rubinstein:
“She was a very astonishing lady. Difficult to know … she didn’t want to be known. There was a mystery, and I think she guarded it. She was thin and extremely tall — unreachable. As an actress, she had a very special inflection — rather precious, not quite simple, not quite natural — as she was, in fact.”
By the end of Les ballets Ida Rubinstein’s glorious run, it is indisputable that Rubinstein had achieved, in the words of biographer Michael de Cossart, “the personal satisfaction of knowing that … she had succeeded not only in mounting more original works than any independent impresario in living memory, but also in starring in [nearly] each and every one of them herself.”
While Rubinstein was to have recurring interactions with several other composers as frequently as she did with Schmitt — Ravel, Honegger and Stravinsky in particular — it is likely that Rubinstein and Schmitt forged the most natural social bond based on a kind of “shared elitism.”
Each was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in the 1930s. Each artist was blessed with having access to ample financial resources, thanks to family money and wealthy benefactors. And each enjoyed the finer things in life — international travel, fine food, stylish clothes and impressive homes.
Reportedly, Ida Rubinstein’s tastes in fashion and clothes were unerring, and she wore them with the carriage of a goddess. Likewise, Florent Schmitt was a person of impeccable sartorial taste with his custom-tailored suits and bow-ties. Both were inveterate travelers as well: Schmitt’s travels took him to lands as distant as South America, while Rubinstein would disappear for a few weeks or months at a time — including ventures during which she would hunt for wild game.
Florent Schmitt’s home from 1920 onwards, a large house and surrounding gardens in fashionable St-Cloud (even today, the city in France with the second highest per capita income level), was the scene of many social get-togethers with like-minded artists and dignitaries, while Rubinstein’s 1921 move to a lavish new residence across from the Place des États-Unis (designed by Bakst), would be her home until leaving Paris at the onset of World War II. Domiciled at Maison Rubinstein were a leopard cub and a panther that surely provided their share of entertainment for guests (and, one suspects, caused more than a little trepidation as well).
The recollections of the Swiss tenor Hugues Cuénod, spoken late in his extraordinarily long life, provide a glimpse into those times:
“It was in 1928 that I began singing in concerts, thanks to my cousin Virginie Cuénod who knew so many people in Paris. She introduced me to painters, composers, writers, and some people from other segments of society I probably never would have met without her … which threw me into the middle of the Parisian world of that time.
I made friends a little bit with Florent Schmitt, who always had an open house on Sundays at his beautiful estate near Boulogne. He engaged me to put together a vocal trio [with Marcelle Bunlet and Lina Falk] … to perform several of his works. We sang in the large hall of the Paris Conservatoire …”
The Second World War would prove to be challenging for both artists. For Schmitt, it was a time when he spent most of his days at his country retreat in the Pyrenees Mountains, returning to Paris mainly to attend concerts of his music. At the end of the war, the 75-year-old composer was questioned by the French government for suspected “collaboration” with the Vichy France regime. The result of the investigation was a one-year suspension (retroactive) of performances of Schmitt’s music in France.
Despite this setback, Schmitt, who never stopped composing, came back to see two dozen late-career compositions premiered during the final decade of his life. Video footage of the composer from the 1950s, filmed at his home in St-Cloud, shows a still-active and spry elderly gentleman.
Schmitt’s musical career culminated in the 1958 performance of the Symphony #2, his penultimate work, by Charles Munch and the French National Radio Orchestra at the Strasbourg Festival just a few months before his death. The composer had already achieved official redemption of his status as an elder statesman of French classical music by becoming the recipient of the Grand Music Prize of the City of Paris in 1957, in addition to having been named a Commander of the Légion d’honneur in 1952.
For Ida Rubinstein, the war was more upending. As Paris fell to the invading German armies, she fled first to Algiers, and from there to Casablanca, Lisbon, and finally to London. Reprising her World War I role, Rubinstein cared for wounded Free French troops in England — all while residing at the fashionable Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly.
As her Paris home had been ransacked during the war — including the loss of her collections of rare books and artwork — Rubinstein elected to return not to Paris, but rather to move to Biarritz and later to her final home, Les Olivades, on the French Riviera near Nice.
Having retired completely from public life — as well as having converted to Roman Catholicism — Rubinstein lived the final 15 years of her life in near-seclusion, spending one month each year at the abbey of Hautecombe near Chambrey, where she was described as “characteristically clad in robes made of the finest white silk.”
When Rubinstein died in 1960, it was nearly a month before her death was reported in the Paris newspapers. It was as if she had willed her own oblivion. Today, her grave in the south of France continues to be decorated by French veterans, who have never forgotten the service she gave to her adopted country over the decades.